Gender, in its narrowest sense, means socially constructed sex, be it female or male. It was in the 1970’s that American and English feminists started using the terms “gender” and “gender relations”. Hence the transition was made from “study of the differences between the sexes... to relations between the sexes both in the sense of social relations and conceptual relations”. (Hurtig, Kail and Rouch, 1991). The word “gender” was to develop at a remarkable pace in the early 1980’s (Nairobi Conference, 1985) in English-speaking and Latin American countries and also within all international organizations; its usage would be facilitated by the holding of a succession of important conferences such as the Cairo Conference (1994) and the Beijing Conference (1995) during which the term definitively established itself. Yet if one were to contemplate the subversive nature of the gender concept, one would wonder why the term became such a catch word. A number of reservations need to be made and it should be noted that, all too often, the word is used simply as a synonym for woman, or the female sex. Such improper usage consists precisely of disguising or erasing to some extent the word “sex”. It can therefore be reasonably assumed that it is this watered-down, almost “dulled” meaning of the word which, by removing much of its epistemological and ideological force, vindicates its excessive use.
This is why it is important to outline the most fundamental implications of the definition provided above, for they will guide and set the tone for this work.
The gender concept implies:
• A rejection of the underlying biological distinction in the word “sex” and in the expression “sexual inequality”, which appears as “an ideological alibi for maintaining domination, the alibi of nature”. (Hurtig, Kail and Rouch, 1991). Women are no more part of nature and no less part of culture than men;
• Grouping together all the differences identified between men and women, be they individual differences, differences in social roles or cultural representations, i.e., the grouping together of all that is variable and socially determined;
• The non-homogenous nature of the category of women, which is transcended by differences of class, ethnicity and age;
• The basic asymmetry and hierarchy between both groups, sexes and genders - one of them dominating and the other dominated - which is the basis of male power;
• The overriding need, regardless of the problem, to consider men in relation to women, whether these relations are complementary or conflictual. It is within these gender relations that power intervenes, in its most virulent or subtle forms, and that it needs to be clarified in order to understand the complexity of the situation. Further and more detailed reference will be made to the fact that gender relations are power relations, and this is one of the determining factors in women’s access to health and medicines.
Gender implies knowledge of the difference between the sexes, yet that knowledge is also a way of organizing the world and is inseparable from the social organization of those differences. Knowledge, much like power, which is one of its pillars, is neither determined nor finite; it is variable and subject to countless changes. The same is true of complementarity and opposition between the sexes which can change and come about through changes in society.
Gender is therefore an essentially dynamic concept which brings into question the apparent immutability of social roles. Despite these advances in theory, women continue to be placed, implicitly, in the category of nature - instinct, sentiment, irrationality - while men, on the contrary, are placed in the category of culture - reflection, abstraction of a mental system. A recent example illustrates well the commonness of this type of stereotype. On April 16, 1999, a reporter with France Inter was reporting on a group of refugees as follows: “...crying women, starving children, humiliated men....” The choice of words, even if unintentional, was not innocent.
Two points should be made on this unequal structure in which gender relations are played off, namely:
• This quasi-universal inequality and subordination has been able to endure for all these centuries only because each and every society has designed the kind of education that produced freely consenting cultural submission in women. “Habit, which has such a great influence on all things in us has, above all, the power to teach us to serve and, as is told of Mithridates, who accustomed himself to poison, the power to teach us to swallow the venom of servitude without finding it bitter.” (La Boétie).
• The social construction of this submission which goes by the name of nature (feminine nature) is so fine-tuned that, for example, women such as peasants and urban street traders in the informal sector, who do 10- to 12-hour days of unpaid reproductive and productive work, state in census surveys that they are housewives, i.e., they are classified as unproductive according to the list of categories. Yet it is common knowledge that their work, in fact, increasingly ensures the family’s survival. Excision is another example that shows how freely submissive women accept genital mutilation and suffering in order to keep up with social traditions and symbols. Yet it should not be forgotten that men too, from a tender age, are trained to be dominant and will exercise that domination just as “naturally” as women submit to it. Submission should be considered as a logical agent of cultural order. This is how social order is constructed and reproduced through perpetuated values and representations still very much prevalent today and why the ideological dismantling of that order is far from being a reality.
• Doubtless, women are subordinated, submissive, more or less marginalized, depending on their country, from the economic, legal, religious and political spheres. Nevertheless, one should be wary of holding them up as victims, and victims alone, regardless of what form of violence the oppressive social regime inflicts on them. They know and have always known how to defend themselves, invent answers and strategies which give them some leeway for negotiation and relative freedom. What is remarkable is that women, faced with difficult situations and in charge of the daily survival of children and the elderly, do not lose hope; instead, they fight, find new answers, invent new solutions, group together with other women better to organize their daily struggle in the form of nurseries, alternative day-care centres, new family structures (e.g. sisters, mothers and daughters) and new economic activities such as organizing garbage collection. In response to the crises they face and the socio-economic changes which accentuate their exclusion, they seek an answer not in tradition, but rather, in modernity. Obviously, not all women react that way, but a great many of them do. On the contrary, many men faced with a situation that undermines their authority such as unemployment or an accident in the workplace far too often adopt an escapist attitude, seeking refuge in alcohol, violence or abandonment. Indeed, in times of adversity women, who were educated to be subservient, fight and resist, even at the cost of great suffering, while men, who were educated to be dominant, do not know how to react in situations which deprive them of their “natural authority”. The problem is serious enough, even if studies on the subject are still few and far between, to warrant some measure of concern from several development organizations. They need to ask themselves more and more frequently how to make men assume their responsibility.